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The third and last time I saw Mya may have been the first time I ever really saw her. She was opening for Boys II Men at the Nissan Pavilion several weeks ago. When Mya appeared, her long, muscular legs seemed to carry her from the back of the stage to the front in two steps. She greeted the half-empty amphitheater perkily, with her dark curls bouncing off her bare caramel shoulders. Was she this tall and this tanned the first time I met her? Onstage, she wore an extremely short royal-blue minidress; it had a slit the size of a New York pizza slice that revealed a wedge of divinely toned thigh. She mentioned something about her friends from high school, and a wave of guilt came over me. But, to my great relief, she reassured the crowd that she was not 14 anymore.
She started to dance. She sang, too, but her high, breathy voice was merely background music to the statement she made with her body. Both times I’d met Mya previously, her clothing had disguised her figure. This time around, though, she made it impossible to overlook. Mya stomped about in her high heels, gyrated, and threw major-league curves at her male dancers. The guys also were talented; they each took a solo, and the crowd clapped for them. But the act remained firmly hinged on Mya’s sex appeal.
The manipulation, betrayed by her self-satisfied smile, was deliberate. As she sang the line from her first single, “Up jumps my butt, nigger, what?/ Look at your eyes looking at my thighs,” I felt hopelessly set-up. Mya purred through a couple more songs from her album, but the defining moment of her performance was her choice of a cover: a seductive rendition of Vanity 6’s slut anthem “Nasty Girl,” which fit her tighter than her dress and left me with no doubt as to who in the R&B world now owns that title.
Little Mya born Mya Harrison in Northeast D.C. on Oct. 10, 1979 is suddenly, sexily, climbing her way up the charts. Her debut album Mya is still on Billboard’s R&B Top 20 after 16 weeks up another notch since the prior week. Vibe magazine has listed her among its “people on the verge.” Spin calls her the “jailbait du jour.”
But young though she may be, this star wasn’t born yesterday. Mya has been performing all her life: tap-dancing since age 7, joining the Dance Theatre of Harlem at 14, landing a spot on BET’s Teen Summit soon after that. She inked her first record deal at 15. Mya is best known for her hiphopped “Islands in the Stream” chorus to “Ghetto Superstar,” the first single from the Bulworth soundtrack. Dolly Parton fans may cringe at the plundering of her melody, but the song has proved a hit. It has also helped launch Mya, with which the adolescent singer has all but ensured her own ghetto superstardom by keeping the content firmly at street level and below.
With her rise to fame, however, Mya may have outgrown her painted-on, patent-leather britches. On her first gold single, “It’s All About Me,” a duet with Dru Hill’s Sisquo, she asks her, er, lover a tender question: “Are you going to get it up?” Her sultry voice coos, “Now swing my body right to left, left to right; you know this shit is tight.” A guy can’t help but imagine….
No. Wait. She’s only 18. Where did this potty-mouthed teenager get her nerve?
On her second single, “Movin’ On,” Mya laments the discovery of a lover’s infidelity: “Whose draws are these? You know I wear a size 4/And if you say that you’ve been faithful, who was at your back door?”
Sheesh! How the music has changed. More than 30 years ago, Marvin Gaye (also a D.C. native) got similar bad news through the grapevine, but his approach was much more euphemistic. Since then, the rhythm of rhythm and blues has devolved into the hiphop hybrid driven less and less by melody that dominates urban radio today. Producers like Timbaland and Dallas Austin have not let limited musical training stop them from making hit records with only a few notes, a few chord changes, and liberal sampling. Meanwhile, the genre’s blues have also become more basic even crude in their expression. Songwriters like R. Kelly “bump ‘n’ grind” out vulgar lyrics while singers like Adina Howard languish about in “T-shirt and panties.”
The legacy continues with Mya, who demoralizes her cheating man with a below-the-belt parting shot: “You ain’t got no money/I should have left you long ago/And your stroke ain’t strokin’ no more/So I’ve been sleepin’ all alone if you know what I mean.”
The second time I saw Mya, several weeks before the Boys II Men show, she seemed frail, shy, and very, very young. A lot of people, she admitted, think she’s 14. Yeah, I could see that. Her shyness, on the other hand, lasted all of two minutes; “I’m not really afraid anymore to speak on things,” she asserted, “because I’m maturing. And as an adult I have things to say.”
Most of what she has to say seems to be about sexually fraught relationships that may or may not be her own, as she does on Mya’s “Anytime You Want Me” and “My First Night With You.” Then there are the failed romantic encounters, such as in “Movin’ On” and the preposterously titled “If You Died I Wouldn’t Cry Cause You Never Loved Me Anyway.” On the jolting “Bye Bye,” hiphop crossover wonder Missy Elliot adds a touch of shocking profanity to yet another of Mya’s looks at infidelity. Her introduction begins, “Hey you, nigger!/Tell me what’s the issue/All up in her booty like tissue/Could it be her pussy’s so vicious? Make you so suspicious?/I’ve been known to beat them bitches with these switches.”
Mya upholds her album’s straightforward lyrical content with a provisional defense. “This is the initial stage, and people have to start out somewhere,” she says. “I don’t really want to spend my whole life talking about relationships….There are other things I want to cover. There’s a world out there, there’s not just my little house where I’m cryin’ over some boy, you know?” Besides, the lyrics, she says, are “accurate for people my age and beyond.”
Several weeks before, at a promotional event at Willie’s Record Store in Temple Hills, Md., hundreds of people Mya’s age and below had shown up to cop her autograph and buy her CD. This was the first time I met Mya, and I could barely distinguish her slight frame from those of the children swarming her. She never once seemed to balk at the idea of impressionable kids being exposed to her more tawdry material. The graphically sexual content is “not too heavy,” she insisted with the stubborn sass of a girl renegotiating her curfew. “You’re going to go through [sexual awakening] eventually. Some people go through it earlier….You could say that you wish it wasn’t like that, but you can say that about a lot of things in life. But you can’t change it.” Her libertine attitude was not as startling as her level of cynicism, which seemed improbably high for a teenager with a gold record.
She has always been precociously ambitious, and her success owes more to youthful confidence and experimentation than to bullheadedness. Growing up, she toyed with the performing arts, from ballet to violin, until, finally, she discovered her love for tap dance. Eventually, she found her footing under the tutelage of dancer and choreographer Savion Glover as a member of the world-renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem. Her decision to try out for BET was a whim. “I just auditioned one day,” she admits. “I didn’t know what I was doing because I didn’t have cable. I’d never seen it.” At any rate, the audition worked out, and Mya spent two years as a member of the dancing “posse” of Teen Summit. But the show, a sort of Mickey Mouse Club for the Moesha set, was not the right platform for Mya’s racier side.
If the TV stint was a fluke, Mya and her parents did not play around when it came to planning her singing career. With the help of her father, Sherman Harrison, an R&B songwriter, she put together a marketable demo, and Sherman used his local industry connections to secure Mya a closed audition with another D.C. native, A. Haqq Islam, who runs the University Music Entertainment label, a division of Interscope. That was in 1995. She had just graduated from high school.
Now that Mya is somewhat famous, her publicist claims that she is a “role model for an entire generation,” a conceit that, hyperbole aside, is scary to concede. The lyrics on her album aren’t so much inspiring as they are selfishly pandering. Her cocky “All About Me” attitude represents a cheap form of the confidence and will she’s applied to her short, successful career.
It’s more reasonable to say that Mya is a typical member of her generation, a generation with many options some purer than others for expressing itself creatively. She has danced solo before a Kennedy Center audience. She has appeared on national television and helped put together her own album. She co-wrote four of the songs on the album and designed two of the dresses for her own videos. Mya is a role model only in that she has pushed herself to perform early in life. Her perspective may yet catch up to her talents. Even Marvin Gaye tried to find out “what’s going on?” while making time to “get it on.”CP
Mya returns to the Nissan Pavilion this Saturday, Aug. 29, with the Smokin’ Grooves Tour.